Prospective teachers question career choice

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Sunday, April 24, 2011

Noah Davisson’s mother and grandmother have worked in public schools, so he knows better than most what teaching is all about.

Davisson has tutored his mother’s fifth-graders. He knows the thrill that teachers talk about when asked what they love about their job: that “aha moment” when a child’s eyes light up, when the child “gets it.”

Davisson was set to transfer from UW-Rock County to UW-Whitewater to pursue a career teaching high school science. But no more. He has seen the writing on the wall, in the persons of Gov. Scott Walker and the other Republicans who control the Legislature.

The lawmakers decided to gut the protections in Wisconsin law that public-employee unions have enjoyed for decades.

The Republicans said the move was needed to balance state and local governments’ budgets. From the teachers’ point of view, the attack slashes the incomes that their unions had won for them over the years by making them pay more for health insurance and pensions

Davisson had heard about the debate and the protests over the proposed legislation. Then he went home one day and heard it from his mom and grandmother: Don’t go into teaching.

Davisson agreed, reluctantly.

“I’m kind of sad that it came to this,” Davisson said.

Davisson said he’s been observing in classrooms as part of a requirement for admission to UW-Whitewater’s college of education, and that’s the day he looks forward to all week.

He said he understands the need for government to get its financial house in order. “I’m just disappointed that we were the first ones on the chopping block.”

So instead of becoming a teacher, he’ll probably transfer to UW-Platteville to pursue the “dorky” side of his nature as a chemical engineer.

“It’s a great career. I’m certainly going to get paid more if I go into engineering, but teaching—you just feel good at the end of the day,” he said.

Katy Heyning, dean of the college of education and professional studies at UW-Whitewater, said UW-W students have been questioning their career choices, too.

“We are hearing our freshmen and sophomores who haven’t actually been admitted to the college of education who tell us they are rethinking their degree,” Heyning said.

The students hear about teacher layoffs and wonder whether there will be jobs for them, Heyning said. They wonder whether compensation a teacher gets in the future will be worth it.

The anti-teacher sentiment that goes with the public debate also has taken a toll, Heyning said.

“We’re trying so hard to attract students into education, highly qualified students who want be teachers,” Heyning said.

But it’s hard to do that when the students see teachers as being used as political pawns or attacked as overpaid and under-worked, she said.

“You try to change those ideas, but the students aren’t stupid. They follow news, and they have parents and teachers who tell them, ‘Don’t go into education.’”

Heyning said UW-W officials try to stay positive when students raise these concerns.

“I look at it as, there may be fewer jobs in education overall, but there will probably be more retirements, and hopefully there will be more entry-level jobs as result,” Heyning said.

For those seeking jobs this fall, “I think there will be more job openings, but it’s really too early to tell” because many districts still are making budget decisions, Heyning said.

Teaching jobs always will be available for those willing to move out of state, Heyning added.

Heyning presides over the largest producer of undergraduate teaching licenses in the state and is president of the Wisconsin Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. She said the state’s 32 other private and public institutions that offer teaching degrees have noticed similar concerns among their students.

Their concerns include school districts that have been reluctant this spring to commit to taking on student teachers because of budget uncertainty. Student teaching is a key requirement for a teaching license.

UW-W has about 1,200 students who are student teaching at any one time, Heyning said.

“We are uncertain whether we will have adequate placements for our students,” she added.

That puts students in a pinch because they need to plan for where they will live when they do their student teaching in the fall, Heyning said.

Heyning said she has heard of teachers who are not sure what their district will throw at them in the fall, so they don’t want to take on the added work of supervising a student teacher. Other teachers are saying, “No,” to make a statement because they feel put upon by the state and school administrations.

Some districts are welcoming student teachers, however, because they can use them to lessen the effects of larger classes, Heyning said.

Heyning also has noticed that some districts are increasing their requests for teacher-interns.

Not every student has what it takes to be an intern, Heyning said, but if they qualify, they can save a district money because they cost less than a licensed teacher but still can be assigned to teach without a supervising teacher in the classroom.

“It’s a cheap way for them to bring people into the classroom,” she said.

Heyning said she’s worried that the state’s aging teachers will retire at an accelerated rate in the years ahead, leaving lots of positions to fill. She also worries that the retirements will leave student teachers without experienced teachers to show them the ropes.

“I think the future will be good for students, eventually,” Heyning said. “I just hope we’ll have enough ready to go.”

Some aren’t deterred from becoming teachers

Some college students are forging ahead with plans to become teachers despite the recent spate of bad news for that profession.

Siara Winans of Brodhead and Margaret Morris of Beloit are two UW-Rock County students who plan to get teaching degrees.

Both women said they always have been aware that being a teacher is not the path to riches.

Winans said she gets “that look” from people implying the question: “Are you sure you want to go into that?” when she tells them she’s pursuing a career in education.

Winans chuckles at the prospect of earning less than she might otherwise have earned before the Legislature cut back on education funding. It’s going to be a lot better than what she’s earning now as a part-time waitress, she said.

Winans thinks a teaching job still could keep her financially afloat as she pursues her other dream: being a writer. She’s also hoping that the political turmoil of the past few months will blow over, and a system will emerge that is fair for everyone.

“I have a positive outlook about it,” Winans said.

Morris wants to teach students with learning and emotional disabilities.

“You don’t become a teacher for the money or anything like that,” Morris said. “You become a teacher to inspire students to better themselves.”

Morris said the job market might not be the best for some teachers, but she noted that the demand for teachers of students with disabilities has been stronger than for elementary school teachers.

Last updated: 4:54 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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